Trump and Syria
by Faedah M. Totah
Faedah M. Totah, Associate Professor of Political Science at VCU, is a member of the Peace Center who has lived, researched and traveled widely in Syria.
The ongoing humanitarian disaster in Syria will not ease, but intensify, with the election of Donald Trump. President-elect Trump did not indicate at any time during the campaign, or since winning the presidency, that the killing and displacement of Syrians is an urgent humanitarian matter in need of resolution. Rather the focus has been on keeping Americans safe which includes the president-elect’s pledge to fight and defeat Da’esh, or ISIS, in both Iraq and Syria. This message appeals to the Syrian regime where both Bashar Asad and his spokesperson have cautiously expressed their willingness to cooperate with a Trump administration if they are committed to fighting terrorism. If Trump maintains his position, then his administration and that of Asad would have found common ground that shifts the focus from the humanitarian crisis engulfing the region to the war on terror. The Asad regime has always promoted the current conflict as fighting terrorists (which he defines as anyone and any group that takes up arms against the regime), and with a potential ally like Trump, the Syrian position might attain some credibility. While the Syrian regime is careful about its expectations from a Trump administration, Asad and his current allies are taking advantage of the chaotic transition from one American administration to the next. As of this writing, forces supporting Asad have retaken Aleppo from the rebels, decimating the ancient city and deepening Syria’s humanitarian crisis.
There is much in a Trump presidency to hearten the Asad regime. First, Donald Trump has not expressed much interest in the Middle East and is not vested in spreading “democracy” or supporting human rights in the region. He has been vocal though, on what he believes were the shortcomings of the current administration in fighting Da’esh. On the other hand, Trump has voiced his admiration for Putin and the need to improve U.S.-Russian relations. Since Putin is more vested in Syria and has committed military assistance and political support to Asad, he might sway Trump to see the situation in Syria from the point of view of the Russians. At the very least, Putin might argue that the Trump administration need not interfere in Syria since the Russians are already taking care of matters there. This is very plausible since Trump sees the situation in Syria not in terms of an uprising against a dictator, but as the battlefield against Da’esh. In addition, Trump has been vocal about curbing the role of the US on the international stage and might welcome the Russian’s position.
Therefore, it is very likely to assume that Asad is hedging his bets on the uncertainly of current U.S. politics and Trump’s lack of vision or interest for anything beyond the U.S. border. In addition, there are Trump’s inconsistencies and contradictory statements that might make any action an inaction. While Trump’s attention is elsewhere, the Syrian regime can continue with its military operations to retake areas held by rebel forces and assert an Asad hegemony over a lesser Syria. It is unlikely that Asad or his allies would be interested in spreading their control east of Damascus and towards the borders with Iraq and Turkey. It is apparent that Asad prefers to maintain control over the western and coastal corridor of the country, from Damascus to Aleppo, and where most of his supporters are, rather than waste resources on policing the eastern part of the country that is scarcely populated and close to porous and unmanageable border with Iraq. He will likely accede the northern and eastern parts of the country that border Turkey to the Kurds. As long as the fighting is contained in the region, there is no reason for Trump to modify his stance on Syria.
For the foreseeable future, Asad will most likely position himself as a valuable American ally in the fight against terror. As much as he is disliked by the US, it will not be the first time the country has aligned with a brutal dictator to further its national interests. As long as the conflict in Syria is defined as a war against terror the humanitarian crisis will wax and wane but never be satisfactory addressed. In the meantime the suffering of Syrians inside and outside of Syria continues.